Digital Exhibition Maps Agency and Identity through Furnishings

Frontpage of “India in America”: East Indian Furnishings between Ahmedabad and Bryn Mawr by Katie Loney

 

Digital Exhibition Maps Agency and Identity through Furnishings

Author: Katie Loney

PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture and Graduate Student Assistant in Public History

How can furniture help us understand the world and its connections? As the Graduate Student Assistant in Public History at Pitt’s World History Center, I have developed a digital exhibition that shares the 19th century furniture from India which I study as an art historian beyond my discipline. “India in America”: East Indian Furnishings between Ahmedabad and Bryn Mawr traces the movements of a set of artistic furnishings produced by the Ahmedabad Wood Carving Company in Ahmedabad, India to explore important questions about agency and identity. In the late nineteenth century, the American heiress, philanthropist, and suffragette Mary Garrett purchased this set for her Baltimore estate, later moving it to Bryn Mawr College’s Deanery with the help of the American designer Lockwood de Forest—one of the Ahmedabad Wood Carving Company’s founders.

Through virtual “galleries,” visitors are able to explore the transnational histories of these Indian furnishings, tracking their movements from Ahmedabad to de Forest’s New York showrooms, Garrett’s Baltimore mansion, and the Deanery, where Garrett lived with her partner, M. Carey Thomas, the then-president of Bryn Mawr College. Looking to period photographs, correspondence, inventory reports, and other archival materials, the digital exhibition reexamines the company’s artistic furnishings and their position within Orientalist interiors, which evoked an imaginary “East” for Western consumption. At each stage, issues of agency and exchange come to the fore by registering the company’s furnishings as objects of skilled craftsmanship, commodities, and exotic luxury furnishings. Taken together, these galleries illuminate the ways nineteenth-century Americans and Indians used luxury goods to navigate their identities and social relationships in an increasingly interconnected world characterized by colonialism and imperialism.

Almost serendipitously, my project coincides with a new exhibition of de Forest’s work at Bryn Mawr College, “All-over Design:” Lockwood de Forest between Ahmedabad and Bryn Mawr, curated by Nina Blomfield (Ph.D. candidate at Bryn Mawr College). This led to a series of collaborative events at Pitt and Bryn Mawr college where we were able to discuss both our exhibitions with the public. At Pitt, we hosted a curatorial conversation in the India Nationality Room. We not only discussed our approaches to work of de Forest and the Ahmedabad Wood Carving Company but were able to compare this de Forest’s design as a turn-of-the-century venture with the twenty-first century Indian Nationality Room modeled after the Buddhist Monastic University, Nalanda (active from ca. 500-1200 CE). This comparison raised questions about the global circulation of materials, goods, and aesthetics and how they are used in places deemed new and foreign. Comparing de Forest and the Indian Nationality Room also highlighted the processes of appropriation and inequity on which nineteenth-century Orientalist interiors relied and perpetuated, while illuminating the ways in which the Indian Nationality Room negotiates issues of identity formation for Indian communities in Pittsburgh.

This event was followed by an object study session at Bryn Mawr College, where Nina and I led an interactive tour of her physical exhibition. Bryn Mawr Special collections provided us with hand lights and gloves to share with attendees, so everyone had the opportunity to engage with the objects visually and tactically. 

Categories: 
  • Agency
  • Identity
  • Mobility/Exchange
  • Graduate Work
  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh